Countdown to Clearwater: Focus on Aaron Nola

Countdown to Clearwater: Focus on Aaron Nola

The Phillies begin spring training in Clearwater, Florida, on Feb. 14. Leading up to the first workout, we will take a daily look at the important issues and storylines of camp.

The start of spring training is always a time for optimism. The sun shines, the palms sway and everyone pats each other on the back and says, “Good to see ya, how was your winter?” There are no slumps, the ERAs are pristine and everyone is in first place.

And as for those nagging injuries of the previous season … well, they’re all healed.

That’s the hope, at least.

For the Phillies, there is no bigger issue coming into this camp than the health of building-block pitcher Aaron Nola, who missed the final two months of the 2016 season with a strained right elbow.

The team and the pitcher took a conservative path to recovery — rest, a PRP injection and a rehab program that stretched well into the fall months. By the conclusion of the rehab program, Nola was back up on a bullpen mound throwing pain-free. He started his wintertime throwing program around Christmas and recently proclaimed himself to be completely healthy.

That’s good news. Really good news.

But …

The truest gauge of the health of Nola’s elbow won’t come until camp begins, until he goes through the springtime progressions that all big-league starters must scale before being ready to throw 100 or more pitches in April. There will be the bullpen sessions, the throwing of live (full-speed) batting practice, the bump in intensity that comes with the start of the Grapefruit League season and finally the tests of pitching into the middle innings, raising a pitch count to close to 100 and having to bear down against a competing hitter in a game situation.

Oh, hello, Mr. Bautista.

Only when Nola clears these hurdles will we have a clearer picture of the health of his elbow.

Until then, we have the appraisals of the pitcher and those close to him, and their pre-spring insights do provide reason for optimism.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” the pitcher said recently. “I feel back to normal. My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

“Everything I’ve heard from last fall all the way through the present has been positive,” general manager Matt Klentak said.

While optimistic, manager Pete Mackanin remains pragmatic about Nola’s condition.

“He says he feels great,” Mackanin said. “But there’s always that concern. He had the issue, he rested it, but there was no surgery, nothing like that, so you always wonder. So therefore, I’m anxious to see how he looks in the spring, and as we get deeper into the spring hopefully he’ll have no ill effects and he’ll stay strong.

“Then you get into the season — you know, you’re always worried, especially about your starters who you rely on every fifth day. I’m going to be nervous the whole year that one day (head athletic trainer) Scott Sheridan doesn’t come into my office and say, ‘Pete, his elbow is bothering him.’ You don’t want that to happen. So, yeah, you’re always thinking about it and worrying about it.”

Of course, managers and front office men have this concern about all pitchers. The elite pitching arm is one of the most valuable commodities in pro sports — and also one of the most fragile.

Nola, 23, is a huge part of the Phillies’ present and future. The club selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft after he’d fashioned a stellar career at LSU. He ascended to the big leagues a year later and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting a rough patch last summer.

Nola’s ERA over his last eight starts of 2016 was an unsightly 9.82. The big reason for his struggle was a loss of his pinpoint fastball command, a lifelong strength, possibly because of a slip in his mechanics. Nola’s confidence took a hit but, as a competitor, he plowed on through what many saw as a normal growing pain for a young big-league starter. Finally, on July 28 in Atlanta, he over-did. He felt something in his elbow, was diagnosed with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon and was shut down for the remainder of the season.

Time will tell if Nola’s health issue is indeed behind him.

If he passes all his tests in spring training, he will be in the team’s five-man rotation with Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson, Vince Velasquez and Clay Buchholz.

The Phillies have coverage if Nola does not pass the tests that will come these next two months in Florida. The team has built significant young starting pitching depth at the upper level of the minor leagues, led by Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan and Alec Asher, a quartet that combined to make 47 starts in the majors last season.

But it goes without saying that the Phillies prefer to have Nola in the rotation come the first week of April. It will mean that he passed all the tests that spring training brought his way and that will be really good news for a pitcher that is important to this club now and in the future.

Next: Day 3 – A look at some of the young prospects in camp

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

Yankees 3, Phillies 2: Jeremy Hellickson shines; big roster meeting on deck

BOX SCORE

TAMPA, Fla. -- With his second straight opening day start coming into focus, Jeremy Hellickson delivered his best outing of the spring on Friday.

The right-hander, two weeks shy of his 30th birthday, held the New York Yankees to five hits and a run over 6 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out three.

Hellickson was remarkably economical with his pitches, throwing just 75.

"I'll take that any time," he said.

So would Pete Mackanin.

"He was great," the manager said.

Hellickson will have one more tune-up -- Wednesday -- before his opening day start April 3 in Cincinnati.

"I'm ready," he said.

And that about says it all.

The game
The Phillies lost, 3-2, when reliever Michael Mariot gave up three hits and two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Tommy Joseph had a pair of hits, including the Phils' only extra-base hit, a double.

Freddy Galvis made a couple of nice plays in the field.

"He just shines out there," Mackanin said.

Joseph, the Phillies' first baseman, was involved in a humorous play in the fifth inning. Hellickson made a pickoff attempt on Aaron Hicks at first base. Hicks dived back toward the base but seemed to get stuck in the infield dirt and came up about a foot short of the bag. Joseph, sensing Hicks would easily beat the throw, didn't immediately notice that Hicks was grounded short of the bag and by the time he did, Hicks was able to scurry to the bag.

As fate would have it, the next two batters hit tough ground balls to Joseph's right and he made close plays at second both times. He fired what looked like a 90 mph fastball at shortstop Galvis on the first one. Galvis even seemed shocked how quickly the ball got on him.

"We laughed about the pickoff play," Hellickson said. "But he made two really good plays after that. I told him he totally redeemed himself. That was funny, though."

Saunders OK
Michael Saunders was hit on the right hand by a pitch in the fifth inning. He left the game for precautionary reasons, but was fine. Just a bruise.

"Glancing blow," Mackanin said.

Roster ruminations
The Phillies leave Florida in a week. They have thinned their roster several times and did so again on Friday, optioning pitcher Jake Thompson and outfielder Tyler Goeddel to the minors and reassigning three others (see story).

An even clearer picture of the roster will begin to emerge Sunday as several non-roster players can opt out of their contracts if they are not added to the 40-man roster. That list includes catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday, reliever Sean Burnett and outfielder Chris Coghlan.

Mackanin said the team would have a personnel meeting on Sunday.

"By Monday we should have some more news," he said.

Still unsettled are the bench and bullpen. Typically the team would have five men on the bench and seven in the bullpen, but Mackanin said the possibility of a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen would be discussed.

"I don't want to do that, especially in the National League, but we're talking about it," he said.

The Phillies have a tight 40-man roster, and that could help Andrew Knapp's chances of making the club as a backup catcher/first baseman. He is already on the 40-man roster. Even if Knapp makes it, the Phils could bring along Hanigan or Holaday as a third catcher.

"That's a possibility," Mackanin said. "We discussed it at the last meeting. We're going to discuss it again on Sunday.

"We're trying to come up with the best plan for when we break, and a lot of it has to do with the non-roster players. If we make a move, someone has to come off (the 40-man roster) and that's an issue."

Up next
The Phillies travel to Fort Myers on Saturday to play the Red Sox. The game shapes up as another audition for a spot in the Phillies' bullpen as Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez are the scheduled pitchers.

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

Phillies trim roster, send Tyler Goeddel, Jake Thompson to minors

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- With a week to go before they leave Florida, the Phillies made several roster moves on Friday morning.

Outfielder Tyler Goeddel, who spent all of last season in the majors, was optioned to the minor leagues.

Pitcher Jake Thompson, who made 10 starts in the majors for the Phillies last season, was also optioned to the minors. He is expected to open the season in the starting rotation at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Goeddel, 24, joined the Phillies organization in December 2015 after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He had originally been a first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2011.

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must spend an entire season in the majors or be exposed to waivers and offered back to their original club. The Phillies kept Goeddel all of last season, fully securing his rights, but he received only 213 at-bats and hit just .192 with four homers and 16 RBIs.

The news on Goeddel was not completely surprising. The wintertime additions of outfielders Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders had made Goeddel a long shot to make the team.

"I knew going into camp I was going to have to earn my spot," he said. "There's a lot of guys in here that have been playing well. Whatever happened, happened."

Goeddel needs to recoup some at-bats in the minor leagues. The question is: where? The Phillies have three top outfield prospects -- Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and Dylan Cozens -- who will require regular playing time at Triple-A. It's possible that Goeddel could open the season at Double-A.

Team officials discussed that possibility with him.

"They want me to get more at-bats," Goeddel said. "That's the main thing. Only getting 200 in your age-23 season is not enough.

"They said there's a chance I'm at Reading. I'm not too happy about that but you can't control it. That's where their most openings are and most consistent playing time.

"I want to play every day. It was tough last year playing sparingly. Getting at-bats is going to be great. Obviously, I wish it was up here. But at the end of the day, you can't control it."

Goeddel is still on the 40-man roster and as long as he stays on it can come back to the majors quite easily if a need arises.

"They said that," Goeddel said. "Last year (pitcher Alec) Asher started at Double-A and was called up. They said that in there. They just want me to get at-bats. That was their main thing."

Thompson could be one of the first to return to the majors if a need arises in the starting rotation.

The 23-year-old right-hander was one of five prospects that the Phillies acquired from Texas for Cole Hamels in July 2015. He went 11-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 21 starts at Triple-A last season and 3-6 with a 5.70 ERA with the big club.

The Phils also reassigned pitcher Dalier Hinojosa, catcher Logan Moore and infielder Hector Gomez to minor-league camp.